In 2008, a pregnant, hemorrhaging woman staggered into a hospital in El Salvador seeking emergency care. The woman, a 33-year-old mother of two, had suffered an obstetric injury that led her to lose the fetus. But because her doctors suspected she had undergone an abortion, they immediately called the police.
The woman was charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison, where she later died. But a petition on her behalf was admitted Wednesday by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an international human rights organization, because according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, she was falsely convicted. The woman, who the Center gave the pseudonym “Manuela,” is also one of thousands of women negatively affected by El Salvador’s anti-abortion laws, which are among the strictest in the world.
According to the Center, Manuela was never given an opportunity to speak to her lawyer or to appeal the decision, and she ultimately died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma while imprisoned in 2010. The Center says she wasn’t treated for the disease until it was too late.
Abortion in El Salvador has been criminalized in all circumstances for the past two decades, after the country’s legislature decreed that life begins at conception. Its restrictive statute holds that pregnancies must be carried to term, regardless if a woman has been raped, if her health or life is at risk, or if the fetus is deformed.
“We’re really excited because we have been waiting for an admission of the case since 2012,” Catalina Martínez Coral, the Center’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, told VICE News. The Center, working with the Salvadoran advocacy group Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalization of Abortion), first filed a petition on behalf of Manuela and her surviving family five years ago. “This is a huge step and this is a very good moment to have this decision.”
In late 2016, a parliamentary bill was introduced to allow abortion in certain circumstances, such as if the fetus isn’t viable or if continuing the pregnancy threatens the mother’s health, but it “faces serious political opposition,” according to Sarah Taylor of Human Rights Watch.
“So the challenge is to create a lot of pressure in order for the congress to respond to this,” Martínez explained. A ruling in Manuela’s favor from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights could accomplish just that, she said, as the organization may recommend that the El Salvador decriminalize abortion or strengthen measures to protect female patients’ privacy. Just last month, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women also called on the country to allow abortion in some cases.
It’s not the first time the commission has waded into the debate. In 2013, El Salvador refused to allow a 22-year-old woman to end her non-viable pregnancy even as her health deteriorated. The commission stepped in and ordered El Salvador to allow doctors to take care of her. The country eventually allowed the woman to have a Cesarean section, but the Center says her health has yet to recover.
A handful of other countries also ban abortion, but the Center considers El Salvador to be the harshest enforcer. Between 2000 and 2011, 129 women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes, the Center found. “In the most extreme cases, women have been incarcerated on charges of aggravated homicide, which carries a penalty of up 50 years in prison,” an Amnesty International report reads.
This hasn’t stopped Salvadoran women from seeking abortions — roughly 20,000 took place between January 2005 and December 2008, according to health ministry statistics. But even if a patient has only miscarried or suffered some kind of obstetric problem, as Manuela allegedly did, doctors sometimes report their patients to the police for fear of prosecution, Coral explained. “Also, I think that there is a very big presence of gender stereotypes. They have to attend these women — that are in the majority of… cases, poor women — and they already think that these women it’s sure that she has had an abortion and they don’t even think that it could be an obstetric emergency.”
To bring attention to these wrongfully imprisoned women, the Center launched a campaign called “Las 17,” highlighting the cases of 17 women who suffered miscarriages but who were convicted and sentenced to decades-long prison terms on abortion-related charges. In 2015, members of Congress wrote to then-Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to speak to Salvadoran officials about “Las 17,” but so far, only two of those women have been released from prison.
“She is one of Las 17 and she should still be with us today, but untreated cancer prevented her from continuing to fight for freedom,” Morena Herrera, executive director of Agrupación Ciudadana, said of Manuela in a statement. “Now we await justice and hope the Salvadoran government recognizes the human rights violations Manuela suffered for the sake of her dignity and her children.”